Post-Disaster PR/Risk Management – Upper Big Branch

A regular SafetyAtWorkBlog reader emailed in a comment this morning that we believe is justified as including it as a post itself.  The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is out of the news outside of the United States but as the Australian reader shows below, there are important lessons from how this disaster occurred and its aftermath as there is in most disasters.  What needs to occur is for the issues to continue to be discussed and lessons applied.  Some links in the post below have been added.

“I’ve been following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster West Virginia, in which 29 miners died from an explosion that occurred on 5 April 2010. It appears that the explosion occurred due to a build up of methane and coal dust in the mine.  Records show that, in the weeks leading up to the explosion, some miners had expressed fears for their lives to their families.  One left a note for his family. To my thinking it reads like a suicide note.

The latest demand by Massey Energy that the Mining Safety and Health Authority (MSHA) hold public hearings came after it became apparent that informants have come forward with allegations of Massey bribing and intimidating mine inspectors.  This echoes their previous union busting activities, achieved through the same kinds of tactics.  Apparently it is feared that they would also apply those tactics to anyone who provided the inquiry with information.

I recently commented that I had never come across, and didn’t really believe in the ‘monster’ organisation that has all the negative characteristics that theoretically create the conditions that lead to such incidents and resultant injuries and loss of life.  Massey’s operations and the attitudes and actions of CEO Don Blankenship, as reported, have forced me to review this stance.

Blankenship is implicated as the driver behind significant and repeat violations of safety standards – many concerning the accumulation of methane, inadequate mine ventilation and a failure to ‘rock dust’ potentially explosive coal dust. (for a LOT of detailed reporting on Massey and WV mining generally see ‘Coal Tattoo’ a blog by Ken Ward Jr in the West Virginia Gazette.  There has also been some in-depth coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal)

Blankenship is emerging as a perfect example of all that could possibly be wrong with the leadership and management of a company engaged in the extremely high risk industry of extracting high quality bitumen rich coal.  A ‘Robber Baron’ mentality, “production first” directives and confrontational and avoidance approach to MSHA directives gave rise to safety failures on a staggering scale.

But this incident has clearly got well beyond the capacity of Blankenship and Massey to exert damage control.  They are, of course, claiming excellence in safety.  Blankenship is calling his critics ‘evil’.  Massey has hired a huge PR outfit to manage their every interaction and utterance.  Massey has an annual general meeting on 15 May – it will be interesting to see if the shareholders dare to unseat some directors or recommend that Blankenship be sacked.  To quote one activist shareholder group (as reported in Coal Tattoo)

““Massey’s alarming record of regulatory non-compliance and corporate governance failures make a clear immediate case for shareholder action to remove these directors….  The CtW Investment Group first raised significant concerns regarding corporate governance problems in a March 31, 2010 letter to Massey’s lead independent director, Admiral Bobby R. Inman, six days before the April 5 explosion, to which Admiral Inman last night.  In the past three years, four directors have resigned from Massey’s board – two explicitly citing the company’s poor environmental and safety record – the latest coming from Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, who stepped down from the board on April 19, 2010.”

Blankenship is an accountant.  He is also a right-wing ideologue.  He has become enormously wealthy, powerful and connected to like-minded US industrialists who share his philosophies.  Will they stand by him and support his continuing management of Massey Energy?  Which will win – substance or spin?  And will it make any difference in the long run.  Valuable mineral resources attract exploiters – not persons whose minds are on preventing loss of human health and life as a primary priority.”

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Post-Disaster PR/Risk Management – Upper Big Branch”

  1. Ken Ward Jr in his Coal Tatto blog today reveals that Federal investigators have determined that a page has been removed from the \’Fireboss Book\’ at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine where the 29 miners died from an explosion on 05 April:
    \’…the fireboss book is the place where mine foremen and certified company examiners are required to write down the findings of their safety checks of the underground mine. Falsifying entries in these books is a felony.\’
    But given Massey\’s and Blankenships record, it was fairly predictable that there may be attempts to destroy or hide evidence from investigators.

  2. Kevin/AUSOHS,
    It will be interesting to see how the \”harmonisation\” progresses. I am on the Health and Safety committee of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and we have our annual congress this coming weekend. I am expecting that the OH&S legislation areas will be high on our agenda to discuss and formulate a position on. Certainly we have been vigorous in getting involved in these to date. (Unfortunately I think the Mining Super Profits Tax is going to get top billing on the agenda now though).

    To me personally, the reasons for keeping mining separate in OH&S legislation are weak, and I think many are more a matter of the states not wanting to work under one legislation than not want to have OH&S as an umbrella. As you mention, NSW has been getting there over recent years, but still mining sits as a special case.

    Unfortuately there are many other parallels in this country of areas where we are struggling to get harmonisation between the states or between states and federal level, that I feel we still have a long way to go.

    On your point, Kevin, about the hotline being the second such line in WV, that makes it even more dissapointing, and certainly as you say points to inherent issues in the regulatory bodies.

    Thanks,
    Jamie

  3. It is hard to find any valid argument for separate regulatory regimes for mine safety and \’other\’. In NSW the legislation is clear – The OHS Act 2000 takes precedence over the mine safety legislation – but the separate safety regimes persist and there has been no attempt to integrate regulatory agencies and services.
    There is a great opportunity for cross-fertilisation of ideas and methodologies. I believe that mine safety would benefit from exposure to a broader range of perspectives on safety, and \’other\’ workplace safety could similarly benefit from exposure to minimgs processes and methods.
    But while mining safety remains in an artificial \’silo\’ this is unlikely to happen.

  4. Jamie

    The media release link for the hotline is http://tinyurl.com/2fa26uf

    Your comment raises two issues of interest for me. One is that, as in Australia, mine safety seems to operate on a different wavelength to occupational safety. They operate under different safety legislation and report, usually, to different safety regulators. Whether this is the way it should be will continue to be argued for many years.

    Australia may be getting to a point of open conflict on this issue as we seem to have a circumstance where a non-mining States, Victoria, is lobbying hard for mining safety to be regulated under the (harmonised) Work Health & Safety Act. There are good reasons for the inclusion but the mining industry has just as good reasons for staying separate. This will be an interesting political clash to watch.

    The other point is that West Virginia now has TWO mining safety hotlines – the one above run by the Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management and another different one run by the mine safety regulator the West Virginia Department of Commerce (http://www.wvminesafety.org/). The Governor says that a new mine safety hotline is required that is independent from the regulator with the clear implication that something is dysfunctional in the regulator\’s systems.

  5. This is the next dissapointing chapter. There has been a big failure in the system and the culture when you need to implement an anonymous third party call line so people can blow the whistle on poor safety. The best way to safety improvement is through a culture of openess and courage to speak.

    Taken from today\’s International Longwall News:

    IN an effort to improve safety statewide, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin has ordered the creation of a hotline for mines and industrial workplaces to report safety issues.

    West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.
    The Mine and Industrial Accident Safety Hotline/Tip Line will be managed by the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management call center and will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    “I want all miners and workers from any other industry in West Virginia to feel empowered to report problems in the workplace without fear of retribution,” Manchin said, noting that callers may choose to remain anonymous.

    “This hotline will hopefully encourage more workers to become involved in strengthening safety procedures from the front lines.”

    The governor pointed out that using the WVDHSEM for the service will ensure that those receiving calls are independent, and not affiliated with any regulatory agencies. The call center’s staff is also equipped to handle any situation involving life safety.

    All received calls will be forwarded to the appropriate agency, whether regulatory or law enforcement, for follow-up. Those agencies will be required to report all issues being addressed back to the WVDHSEM.

    “To help prevent future tragedies like last month’s at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County and to fix unsafe conditions that may cause accidents, injuries or fatalities, we need all levels of mining and industry workforces to play an active role,” Manchin said.

    “No one should hesitate to call the safety hotline with concerns – no matter how large or small.”

    The West Virginia Mine and Industrial Accident Safety Hotline/Tip Line is now available at 1-866-808-0875.

  6. Interesting piece. I agree that the behaviours in this case seem to be abhorent, having put people\’s lives at risk. And I must admit it challenges my ideals about the intentions of mining operators and owners always being for the best. I have never heard of, and would never expect behaviours like this in a developed nation. We are working hard to remove them from developing nations, so it is dissapointing to see this occur in the US.

    But I would take exception, or maybe just seek to clarify, the last statement. Valuable minerals may well attract exploiters whose minds are tuned more to profits than safety. BUT mineral resources do not ONLY attract these type of people. Mineral resources, and the mining industry, do attract a lot (in fact the vast majority) of people whose minds are constantly on preventing injury or loss of life. I think (and hope) it\’s just the wording of this last sentence that implies the mining industry is full of people with the wrong intentions. This must be seen as an isolated case. So many people work so hard every day to improve safety in the industry and to keep people safe. And I\’d hate for all these people and the industry as a whole to be tarnished by individuals actions, heartlessness and greed.

    Thanks,
    Jamie

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